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South Korea seeks clarity from US after Trump-Kim summit

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South Korea seeks clarity from US after Trump-Kim summit

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Jung Yeon-je/Pool via REUTERS
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South Korea will be looking for clarity from Mike Pompeo on key security issues raised by the Trump-Kim summit, when the US secretary of state visits Seoul on Wednesday.

The country was as surprised as anyone by President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in Singapore that the US would be “stopping the war games” — the joint military exercises it regularly carries out with South Korea.

President Moon Jae-in is expected to be briefed personally by the US secretary of state, who landed at Osan Air Base. Pompeo is also due to meet the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers.

Trump has already spoken to Moon by phone, in a 20-minute call following the US president’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, which saw a pledge from both leaders to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

The South Korean president responded positively to the summit, praising the "courage and determination" of both leaders.

East Asia nerves

The US has been a major ally of Seoul since the Korean War in the 1950s, and is seen by many nations as the ultimate guarantor of security in the region.

It has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea and the two countries hold annual large-scale drills. But at his post-summit news conference, the US president described them as “very provocative”.

One South Korean official was quoted as saying he was “shocked” by that description. Current and former US officials say they’re concerned at the possibility that the US might stop military drills unilaterally, without an explicit pledge from Pyongyang to lower its threat.

Japan’s defence chief said on Wednesday that the US military presence in South Korea and joint military exercises were “vital” for East Asian security.

“It is up to the US and South Korea to decide about their joint exercises. We have no intention of changing our joint drills with the US,” Itsunori Onodera said.

Japan has vowed to stick to plans to bolster its defences against a possible ballistic strike from North Korea, which has previously fired missiles over Japanese territory.

The Pentagon has denied that US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was caught off guard by the president’s announcement, saying “there were no surprises”.

China has confirmed that Pompeo will visit Beijing on Thursday. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has praised the "important progress" made at the Singapore summit to begin resolving the Korean peninsula's problems.

‘Great progress’

"Great progress was made." That was the personal assessment made by Trump, after the summit.

North Korean state media lauded the summit as a resounding success, highlighting concessions made by the US president.

But with no clear signs of how or when the process will unfold, others have been more cautious about the summit's implications. Trump’s total sidelining of North Korea’s infamous human rights abuses has also caused concern.

The summit's joint declaration said that Pompeo and North Korean officials would hold further talks “at the earliest possible date”. The US secretary of state has said Washington will demand “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation.

However, dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme will present a daunting challenge.

“It's going to be a long journey and there's a lot of work to be done yet, this is just the beginning of negotiation that could encompass a lot of very complex and difficult issues between United States and North Korea that will include many of the major powers in that part of the world," said Dr Peter Brooks, Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said it is ready to verify a deal, although it focuses on monitoring nuclear materials and sites rather than disarmament. Its inspectors have not returned to North Korea since they were expelled from the country in 2009.

Japan is ready to help shoulder some of the initial costs of North Korea’s denuclearisation — but only after the IAEA restarts inspections, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday.

With both Trump and Kim now having exchanged invitations to each other’s countries, the US president sees a promising personal relationship with his North Korean counterpart as the key to further progress.

Despite all the uncertainty and scepticism following the summit, the change of tone between Washington and Pyongyang is astonishing. Compared to the insults and “fire and fury” threats of not so long ago, today’s mutual talk of seeking peace and stability represents a great diplomatic leap forward.